The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff. New York: Public Affairs, 2019.
Summary: An extended treatise on the idea of surveillance capitalism, in which we are the “raw materials” for others economic gain and the object of instrumentarian control.
I heard about this book from an interview with the author. I wish I had been forewarned that the soundbite argument of a radio interview was a bloated treatise laden with abstraction, jargon, and a determination to “show all one’s work.” A much shorter work may have been more effective in making its point.
There are two major ideas in this book. One is that a new form of capitalism has arisen as companies like Google and Facebook have figured out how to monetize their platforms through the information that users willingly and sometimes unwittingly surrender that are used to generate the advertising revenues that really fund their enterprises. We are not the customer, we are the raw material, and these platforms have become increasingly skilled at “scraping” data from every aspect of our lives that may be monetized. Our posts, our likes, our searches, and via our smartphones, our locations, and all our app use are sources. So are the devices wired into our cars and our homes, and eventually, even into our clothes. All of this data is “behavioral surplus” about us enabling various entities to market to us and, less benignly, manipulate our perceptions and behavior.
This leads to the second and perhaps more sinister idea that the entities controlling these platforms are seeking to establish instrumentarian, not totalitarian control of society, working toward the idea of a “frictionless” hive mind, controlled by “Big Other.” The aim is total certainty in the control exercised and guaranteed outcomes to marketing efforts. Platforms own the means of behavioral modification, the use of which is concealed. Zuboff’s description of these efforts reminded me of Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel The Circle (review), a world in whose ideal is that nothing be hidden, nothing secret, and all transparent. For Zuboff, the greatest problem these platforms face is “friction,” in which individuals do not surrender privacy or information.
One idea introduced toward the end of the book is that of “equivalence.” Anything that produces more traffic, more engagement, and information is good. It struck me that this was the flaw in the supposed dream of a “hive mind.” This was amply on display in recent elections and efforts at social disruption. Platforms do have the ability to control these but tend to refrain, even though these promote conflicting rather than harmonious interests. My hunch is that capitalism is of greater interest than control and that these platforms are relatively indifferent to content as long as it is profitable.
The bigger problem I have is that this book is long on assertion and short on data or practical recommendations. The most she can offer is “be the friction.” I do believe she offers legitimate warnings about how unwittingly we yield up all kinds of information about ourselves. She doesn’t explore the networking of platforms, and how everything from what we buy at the grocery store to our credit records to our health records, the layout of our homes and our travel histories can be compiled. I’m not convinced that “Big Other” is the greater danger than “Big Brother.” What I do believe is that Zuboff raises a necessary warning that our democratic freedoms, including some measure of self-determination, may be lost. It may even be that they are not taken from us so much as willingly surrendered.